Lessons Learnt (or not) in Sri Lanka

This post is part of our Sri Lanka’s visit to the U.S. Series.

This post was contributed by M.C.M Iqbal, two-time Secretary to Presidential Commissions of Inquiry into Disappearances.

M.C.M Iqbal, two-time Secretary to Presidential Commissions of Inquiry into Disappearances.

I have served two Presidential Commissions appointed by the Sri Lankan government to look into very serious human rights violations – including tens of thousands of enforced disappearances and massacres of civilians by state forces.  And I can attest to the fact that none of their findings or recommendations were taken seriously by the Sri Lankan authorities.  Their detailed conclusions and recommendations aimed at securing justice and redress for victims and their families have never been implemented and their inquiries had no deterrent effect on future violations.

The Sri Lankan government has just appointed the latest in a long line of these Presidential Commissions.  This one is on ‘Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation’ to look into the armed conflict with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) that ended last year. This cynical gesture – vague in its particulars and bound to failure — in no way substitutes for an independent international investigation by the United Nations into allegations of war crimes committed in Sri Lanka.

Abductions, illegal arrests and detentions, kidnappings, extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances (many politically motivated or committed in the context of supposed anti-terror operations) continue in Sri Lanka. Police blame ‘unknown persons’ for these incidents and rarely investigate. Torture in custody is almost the norm. When deaths in custody occur police often claim the victim was shot while trying to escape.

Domestic Commissions of Inquiry have failed to prosecute more than a handful of perpetrators in the security forces despite the fact hundreds of officers have been named in reports. This failure to challenge a culture of impunity gives the security forces carte blanche to continue to carry out violations.

Periodically the world wakes up and takes notice of Sri Lanka’s terrible human rights record, as it did briefly last May when the Sri Lankan government sacrificed the lives of thousands of innocent civilians and maimed thousands of others in its efforts to wipe out the LTTE. The government is accused of ignoring several international conventions relating to the conduct of war. Only an independent body can confirm the facts.

Sri Lanka appoints Presidential Commissions of Inquiry only when the government is under extreme diplomatic pressure for violating the rights of its citizens.  These may serve to temporarily derail international criticism, but nobody in Sri Lanka is really fooled by such dubious tactics.  We all know these Commissions are only window dressing.


Sec. Clinton's shot at uncovering justice for Sri Lanka's war crimes

Originally posted on HuffingtonPost.comThis post is the first of our Sri Lanka’s visit to the U.S. Series.

In the context of Amnesty International’s global campaign to establish an international, independent investigation into alleged war crimes in Sri Lanka, we are currently closely following the US visit of Sri Lanka’s Foreign Minister, Professor G.L. Peiris.

Sri Lanka’s Foreign Minister, Professor G.L. Peiris, is currently on a public relations tour through the United States, touting his country as the new paradise for foreign investment, and dismissing war crimes allegations on the way. This week, he even took to the Huffington Post website to present his questionable worldview: “A Year After Defeating Terrorism, Sri Lanka Embodies Hope and Change“.

One year after Sri Lanka’s civil war came to a bloody end, the evidence that both parties to the conflict committed serious human rights violations, including war crimes, continues to pile up. Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the International Crisis Group and the US State Department have compiled extensive reports on the human rights violations that were committed by both the Sri Lankan army and the armed Tamil Tigers. To date, not one single individual has been held accountable for the crimes committed.

Consequently, Sri Lankan government officials have had difficulties hiding their self-confidence following their successful attempts (so far) to evade official international scrutiny. (This confidence is further boosted by articles such as a recent New York Times piece that declares Sri Lanka as the number one tourist destination to visit in 2010. The New York Times article is now part of the official information package that is handed out by Sri Lankan embassy staff at events where the Foreign Minister is speaking).

Push to lift Leahy law restrictions

This new self-confidence became most visible for me during a talk at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), when Minister Peiris openly stated that one objective of his US visit is to change US policy that bars US training of the Sri Lankan military under the Leahy amendment. The Leahy amendment prohibits U.S. security assistance to foreign military or security units, which are believed to have committed gross human rights violations.